Things I’ve Learned in Grad School

Dear Humans, I’ve just finished the first year of my masters in material culture.* You will be unsurprised to hear that I’ve learned a whole lot of things. You may also (especially if you’re slightly older and wiser that I was last July) be unsurprised to hear that a lot of them were things I wasn’t anticipating.  

Below is, I hope, a slightly humorous and somewhat edifying list (at least if you’re younger and/or less wise than I am at this current moment in time) of some of those things. 

On Going to Grad School: You can choose to go to grad school because you crave more education, or because you need some more letters after your name to get the job you think you want. Or you can go because you don’t like what you’re doing now, and a masters degree gives you two whole years to think about what you might rather do without having to apply for a new job. Don’t worry. Lots of other people did it for that reason too.

On Grad School Being Hard: If you’re wondering if you’re smart enough for grad school, don’t worry. Or rather, don’t worry about that. If you’re like me, when people told you that grad school was hard, you thought: “oh gosh. I’m going to have to think big hard thinky-thoughts that will make my head hurt.” Because that’s what it means for school to be hard. Sadly, this is not the case. Certainly grad school is full of challenging (or at least rather interesting) ideas, but so far it has yet to prove a serious intellectual strain most of the time. But of course there are still ways for school to be hard. For example, being assigned between one and five hundred pages of reading a week, per class.


On Reading: Here’s a lesson I didn’t figure out till most of the way through my first semester: don’t read everything. You can’t anyway, and its not really the point, apparently. The point is to only read the important bits. And if that sounds like a bit of a mind fuck to you (how, one might ask, is one supposed to know the important bits without reading all of them?) you would not be alone. All I can say is: don’t worry too much about it, and practice saying “fuck it!” and skipping a reading or two from the beginning, just to see what it feels like. Otherwise you may not survive.


Also (and this is a bit of advice I was given that really really helped): you can read everything later. The books will still be there once you graduate, but you won’t have access to your professors, or everything on JSTOR for free, or (in my case) the museum collection, or (in your case, perhaps) all the cool equipment in the lab. Take advantage of that stuff while you have it and don’t worry about the fucking reading so much.

And ALSO: you will learn how to not read – it turns out this is a skill. (Possibly you learned this in undergrad or middle school or something – I did not.) You will start defining a well-written book as one where you can read only read the first sentence of every paragraph and still get the point. An even better-written book is one where just the first an last paragraph of every chapter will do.

On Your Grades: No one cares how you do. I mean, you almost certainly do, but probably not a lot of other people. No one is going to clap you on the back if you work yourself to the bone getting an A. Later, when you don’t work quite as hard and still get an A, you’re going to hate past you a little bit. There will be a point when you’re proud of yourself for getting a B because it was the result of you acting like a semi-rational and calm human being, instead of an insane research robot.

On Research: Just because you’re really excited about your thesis topic doesn’t mean everyone else is. Despite that, it’s worth having an elevator speech about why your thesis topic is cool. Mostly just try to sound enthusiastic. People will smile and nod, and get off on the third floor.

*On “Material Culture Studies”: If you thought doing a masters in Material Culture would make defining “material culture” for people easier, you were wrong. When you’re talking to an engineer, and they think you said “material science” just nod and go along with it until you can excuse yourself.

While saying “I study old stuff” is technically accurate, it generally does not do a whole lot to clarify the situation.

If you think you might need to actually explain yourself to someone, or they’re cute and you’d rather they not think you’re a total nut, try a concrete example: “We all wear clothes/sit in chairs/use tools. People in the past did all those things too! We can learn a lot about them by looking at the stuff they made and used!” Or try: “I’m a historian, but instead of reading books, I read things!” (Note: enthusiasm and conviction are both necessary here. This can, ultimately, be a bit of a hard sell for some people.)

On Telling People You’re in Grad School: Just because you think it’s really cool that you’re in this awesome program with all these amazing opportunities, it does not mean that everyone else is going to be impressed when you tell then you’re a grad student. Especially when you then can’t explain what you’re studying. Whatever you were doing before probably sounded more interesting, or less elitist. Or both.

On Working Hard: It is possible to spend approximately four straight days alone in your house doing school work, and then  you should probably a) go outside and get some sun and b) talk to some other humans. Knowing all of this stuff won’t do you any good if you go crazy in the mean time.

And Finally: Crying to your mom about how everything is horrible is just as relevant in grad school as it was in preschool. It has a very decent chance of fixing everything too, so call your mother.



One last thought…

On Not Sounding Totally Bleak: Just to clarify, I am having a really wonderful time in this program. I’m having an even better time now that I’ve stopped pretending I’m going to read every word of everything I’m assigned. I’m even almost ready to start thinking about what to do with my life afterwards!